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They were on the return leg of a routine supply trip to bustling, dusty Primero when Hob Ravani saw the great eagles circling above the rolling sea of red dunes. The enormous birds were laboratory creations that had been brought along by the first settlers, a mix of eagle and vulture that could smell water from kilometers away – useful on a planet where there was no surface water for most of the year. They were also very, very good at smelling blood.
The two older mercenaries from the Ghost Wolves chattered back and forth on the short wave circuit, shooting the shit about their most recent job. It had been a simple escort across the salt flats between Shimera and Walsen that begged for a bit of spice if it was going to be of use to catch the attention of any town girls. Their tinny voices were loud over the sound of wind, the soft hum of the electric motors and the metallic whine of chainmesh and steel tires propelling the motorcycles over the sand barely audible through Hob’s helmet.
“So, shall it be eight bandits, or only six?” Coyote’s snobby accent and slightly nasal tones, there. He was the shortstack of the team, a good fifteen centimeters shorter than Hob at her lanky two meters, nearer thirty centimeters shorter than the dark mountain that was Dambala. He tended to make up for what he lacked in size with sheer, grinning craziness.
“Weren’t any bandits ’tall.” Dambala’s deep, rumbling bass.
“You’re rather missing the point, Bala.” Coyote huffed out a long-suffering sigh. “You lack vision.”
“You lack honesty.”
Hob laughed – it was impossible not to, listening to the Coyote and Dambala comedy hour – but it was pure habit. Her eye was fixed on the eagles as a third soaring shape joined them.
“You seein’ what I’m seein’?” she asked, her voice activating the microphone in her helmet.
“See what?” Dambala asked.
“Eagles circlin’, ’bout two o’clock.”
“So it would seem,” Coyote said a moment later. He sighed. “I suppose we ought to check on it.”
Him saying that as senior on the squad was more form than anything else; they’d already turned course, aiming for the dunes below those eagles. The command structure of Ravani’s Ghost Wolves tended to be more of a suggestion backed up with the occasional fist fight. Older Wolves called the shots over the younger ones out of respect, and by grace of being more cunning and less likely to get het up and run off with their cocks hanging out. Only when it came to the commander, Nick Ravani, did yessir and nosir magically pop up in anyone’s vocabulary, and Hob thought that was half a matter of a tradition that stretched back to the first colonization of Tanegawa’s World, and half a matter of Nick being crazier than a shithouse rat and seven times meaner. There was always a Ravani in charge, to the point that Ravani had come to mean commander and boss. It was a name you earned, a name you took when the old leader died and a new one clawed his way to the top through sheer cunning – most of the time.
Somewhere out in space there was a government, and laws, but they might as well have been ghosts for all this dusty, desert world was concerned. Here, there was only TransRift, Inc and their private security company Mariposa, and neither much cared if someone was dying in the desert. Most of the time, if someone ended up in the dunes it was because the company had put him there.
But Hob, Coyote, and Dambala weren’t TransRift employees, and even those under the thumb of the company had rules. Number One: never leave someone stranded to die, because you didn’t want the same to happen to you some day. It was bad luck, bad karma, bad everything. And the unspoken rule the Ghost Wolves added to it was this: if you were going to leave someone out in the dunes, well, you shot them in the head first. Because sometimes a quick death was the only kindness available.
They crested a dune, and Hob caught sight of a dark huddle in the sand, full in the punishing afternoon sun. “Think it’s already too late for that one,” she commented.
“Might have a note for his wife or somethin’,” Dambala said. “Better check.”
They pulled up at the base of the dune, parking their motorcycles with wide stands designed to not sink into the sand. Hob pulled her helmet off, the two tight plaits she kept her dark brown hair in plopping down onto her shoulders. Staying still for any length of time made the helmet into a personal, head-sized oven. Relative cool or not, she regretted her decision immediately as the strange, burnt death stink coming off the body hit her, thick enough to chew.
Corpse it would be: only the unconscious or dead would stretch out facedown in the sun like that, and there was enough rust-brown spatter around to show that some carrion eaters had already worried at the person’s flesh. She could also tell it had likely been a man, from the cut of his clothes – it was rare for women to wear men’s clothing like Hob did, except for the few who fought for a place deep in the mines, where the money was best.
His suit had probably been a good one before he was picked apart by animals, and strangest of all, he still wore his jacket. As a rule, people who got blacklisted and thrown out into the desert weren’t wearing their Sunday best – and they sure didn’t keep on anything more than they had to once the punishing heat hit. He had no hat, likely either gone on the wind or forgotten entirely. The patches of hair visible against the burnt skin stretched taut across his skull were gray, neatly trimmed.
Hob glanced at Dambala and Coyote. Both still straddled their bikes, waiting for her to make the check. Of course they were; they’d both been full Wolves for over a decade, and had no reason to get their hands dirty when someone barely out of puppyhood was around. Even less reason when their resident pup was an itinerant fuckup who’d unaccountably been given a second chance.
Grimacing, Hob crouched down next to the still man and pushed him over. His face was bloated horror, eyes gone, but she’d seen worse. Something niggled at her brain, the set of his jaw maybe, still visible in silhouette. She felt at the man’s pockets and found a small wallet with some money in it. Gold flashed on his finger – a ring – and she lifted the hand up for a closer look, glad that she was wearing gloves.
She let go abruptly. “Shit…” she whispered.
Coyote’s voice came tinny and thin from the speakers of her helmet, overturned on the sand nearby; apparently he preferred heat to stink. “What’s wrong, Hob?”
Hob took up the man’s hand again, this time much more reverently, inspecting the ring. “We know him.” She’d seen the light play off etched geometric shapes time and again, helped lose it once and find it again in a much more innocent time.
“I had a bad feeling you might say that. Who is it?” Coyote asked.
“Uncle Phil.” Philip Kushtrim wasn’t her uncle by blood; she had no blood relatives on the entire planet, had jumped ship here over a decade ago from an interstellar cargo hauler. But he was Nick Ravani’s older brother, and Nick was the closest thing to a father Hob had ever had – sad comment on her life that it was.
“Fuck.” It was Coyote’s turn to curse. Not that any word existed to encompass the sight, Hob knew. They’d all been friends with Phil, one way or another. “Old Nick’s not going to be pleased.”
“He’s gonna spit blood over this.” Dambala sucked at his teeth. “Someone else’s blood.”
Hob held Phil’s hand between hers for a moment, fingers gently touching his knuckles as if that could urge him to un-die somehow, to erase the horrors of a body left for days in the sun. It was hard to imagine this blackened, bloated sack of rotting meat was all that remained of the man who had tried so hard to treat her like a second daughter despite all the stubborn resistance she’d shown as a gangly adolescent. He’d been so kind to her, and she’d repaid it all with anger, selfishness, and betrayal.
She rolled his body half over, running her hand lightly across his back, something twisting inside her chest. “There’s at least four bullet holes, middle of his back. Maybe more. Hard to tell with all the pickin’ the eagles have done already. But whoever done this must’a gunned him down, as he was running. I seen it before.”
“We’ve all seen it before. The only question is if it was greenbellies or bandits,” Coyote said grimly.
“Ain’t much of a difference, is there.” Nearly five years ago, Hob had found a gold tie tack shaped like a maple leaf on the corpse of a bandit – same kind the Mariposa greenbellies wore. Old Nick had just looked like he’d been sucking lemons when she handed it over to him, not a hair turned with surprise. It was a well-known, black-humored joke that Mariposa must actually be bad at guarding things, at the rate so-called bandits stole state-of-the-art guns from them.
“TransRift don’t care who cleans off their blacklist. Dead’s dead,” Dambala said. Though the thought of Uncle Phil on the blacklist was inconceivable – he was, had been, a crew leader at the mine in Rouse. He was no company shill, but he was respected and liked by everyone, and had as much power as someone who wasn’t a blue suit could.
Hob shook her head, put Phil on his back again, then tugged at his wedding ring – his wife, Irina, would want that back – but it wouldn’t come from the bloated flesh. Nothing for it, then; she slid a knife from her sleeve. “Sorry. Not like you can feel this anyway.”
She took his entire finger and slipped the ring from the severed stump, tucking it into her pocket. The remaining carrion she made to toss back onto the sand, but then thought better of it and pulled a handkerchief from another pocket. Trying not to think too hard about what she was doing, she rolled the severed finger up in the handkerchief and tucked it away.
“Girl, you did not just–”
“Shut up, Bala. I got my reasons. Ones you don’t want to know about.” Ones that Old Nick might understand, but no one else. She patted down the rest of Phil’s pockets and came up with a little burlap bag, stamped with the TransRift logo and a sample number. One corner was stained with blood, but the rest was clean. She had to take off her leather gloves so she could pick the tight knot of the drawstring apart with her stubby fingernails.
Something glittered in the bag; she shook it out onto her bare palm, just one little grain. She had a second to register that it was bright, and glassy, and blue, a little bit of shiny nothing, and then it exploded out into a flashing ring of fire. Hob jumped back, her fist going tight around the bag so she wouldn’t drop it. The flame stayed over her other hand, growling and moaning, licking at her fingers like a living thing. It didn’t burn, though. Fire hadn’t been able to burn her for years, since she’d survived her time in the desert and come out witchy.
Answering light flared in the sky. She looked up, the fire in her hand growing to a column, a beacon. Wings of fire unfolded across the blue, the three great eagles flapping clumsily away as an enormous bird of white-hot flame opened its beak in a soundless, defiant shriek.
“Phoenix,” she whispered – the name of the rift ship that had brought her to Tanegawa’s World, and the strange vision she’d seen after Nick had tricked her into the desert and left her to almost die. This was something that no one but her should be seeing. Old Nick had told her too many times that this needed to be secret, and she’d heard of too many townsfolk dead or disappeared under the suspicion of witchiness, removed by TransRift for being dangerous and contaminated. Hob took a deep breath and closed her fingers around the flame, drank in the fire. The light and heat drew down and disappeared under her skin. It was one of the few things Nick had ever taught her to do with the strange power they shared, because it was both useful and easy to hide. Her heart sounded loud in her ears, the empty socket she had in place of a left eye aching in memory of talons ripping and tearing flesh in exchange for her life and blood full of fire.
“What the hell is that?” Coyote shouted.
Hob sucked in a shaky, scorching breath. “Past catchin’ up with me, mayhap.”
“What?” Dambala asked.
She shook her head. “Nothin’.”
“That was definitely something,” Coyote said.
Hob uncurled the fingers of her other hand, the one that had held the fire. Her olive-toned skin was still unblemished… if you ignored all the old crisscrossing knife scars, the half-healed scrapes. “Don’t know. But think I better find out.” She closed up the little sample bag with a defiant jerk and stuffed it into another of the pockets in her brown leather trenchcoat. Sweat pooled around her armpits, on her back. “We best get movin’ again, afore we cook.” She hesitated, then added, “Did you two… did you see anythin’ in the sky, just then?”
“Was too busy watchin’ your hand afire to look anywhere else,” Dambala said.
“I didn’t notice anything,” Coyote added. “Why?”
Hob shook her head. She’d only ever told one person about the phoenix that had spoken to her that day – Old Nick, who was missing the same eye as her. Funny coincidence, that. Old bastard had just smiled, said, I knew you had some fire in your belly, girl. Best not go spreading the story around. This here’s a company world, and we got no truck with witchiness, ya ken? Without those words, she might have just convinced herself it was the hallucination of a brainpan turned to jerky by the sun. “Never you mind.”
“We best get the Ravani the news quick,” Dambala said, as they got back on their motorcycles.
“No shit.” Hob allowed herself one last glance at Phil’s body. He’d been as close as she ever had to an uncle for seven years, and then a stranger like everyone else for the last three. After Mag – no – after Hob had ruined it all. He deserved better than this, deserved to be burned with honor and have a hell of a wake. Hauling his body home was a luxury of weight they couldn’t afford, not with their bikes already laden with the contraband from Primero, motorcycle parts, the delicate things like chips and relays that the Garagemaster Hati couldn’t jury-rig or forge on his own “Fuck. I’ll go to Rouse, tell Irina and… and Mag. You both get home and let the old man know.”
“Now, hold on a minute.” Coyote shook his head, the bright sun glancing off his visor making her wish for her helmet and its polarizers. “That isn’t your decision to make, and I seem to recall we ought not be leaving you to your own devices.”
That hurt like a slap coming from Coyote, who wasn’t so much a loose cannon as a loose surface-to-air missile. Hob ignored him and pulled the four heavy saddlebags off her motorcycle to toss them over to Coyote and Dambala, who caught them rather than let them fall into the sand. “Trail’s already at least a day and a half, mayhap two days cold. Don’t want to let it get any colder. And out of the three of us, you know I’m the best tracker. He’s gonna be breathin’ fire as it is, and you know it. Your ugly damn faces might be a few degrees less charred if someone’s already started askin’ around, tryin’ to find out who killed his brother and why.”
Of all the reasons for getting busted back to a recruit, lack of skill had never been one of them. Redoing all her training had only honed her to a finer edge she could put to use and attempt to convince them all that she truly did belong.
With a certain amount of bad grace, Coyote started fitting the extra saddlebags. “Your logic is impeccable, I’ll admit.”
“Don’t like leavin’ you alone, though,” Dambala said. “And that ain’t meant as an insult.”
She shoved her helmet on. Dambala’s care felt good, though she’d never admit it. He’d been one of the few who hadn’t had a hell of a good time making up rumors about her fall from Nick’s good graces. “I been a real Wolf for months now, boys. No need to keep protectin’ me like I’m a pup. I can care for myself.” She’d prove it.
Dambala nodded. “Don’t do nothin’ stupid.”
“Gonna hurt my feelings if you keep talkin’ like that.”
“And we all know how delicate your feelings are,” Coyote drawled. “Like a hatchet in the back.”
“That only happened the once.” She flicked on her engine, goosed the throttle to spin the motorcycle in place in a halo of thrown sand, and headed off in the general direction she knew held Rouse. Once she was up to speed and on the flats, she reset the map on her HUD. Now that she was a full soldier, she had a real bike: twice the engine she’d had as a pup, computer in it as sophisticated as one could be without the strange magnetic fields of Tanegawa’s World frying it. Which wasn’t very sophisticated, and prone to malfunctioning and shorting out at random besides. Global positioning and comms satellites were things that happened to other, more normal planets, but anyone who wanted to survive more than five minutes learned how to read a map and track their course with velocity, heading, and time. Rouse now plotted as her destination, she flipped her intercom off so she wouldn’t have to hear Coyote and Dambala going to static as the unsteady atmosphere gobbled up the radio waves.
Alone, with only the sound of wind whistling past her helmet and the hum of wheels on sand, she let the sadness and rage at seeing Phil shot in the back and abandoned to burn black on the sand well up inside her. It made her eye sting, but no more than that. Maybe because she hadn’t seen him for anything but business in three years – though whose fault had that been, with her too ashamed to look anyone in the eye after what had happened with the preacher’s boy?
Or maybe she just didn’t have it in her to cry any more.
She hadn’t seen Irina or Mag at all these past three years. First she’d been fighting just to convince herself she deserved to live, then to convince the others she still had a place among the Wolves. And by the time she was allowed back into Rouse, she’d found she was still torn up and angry at Mag for betraying her to Old Nick, even though she knew now it had needed to be done. No other way had been possible, but that didn’t make it hurt any less when your best friend, your sister, turned on you. But she knew also that she owed it to Mag and to her mother to bring this message in person. Some small, horrible part of her was a little glad to have this excuse to see them again, to maybe wring a drop of something positive from a tragedy.
Maybe she’d forgive them.
Maybe they’d forgive her.
Except this chance to reach back to the pretty parts of her past had come at the cost of a good man’s life, the only truly good man she’d ever known.
It wasn’t worth it.